Valentine’s Day is my favorite celebration, and yes, I know it isn’t a holiday, it is a marketing event. While it seems so commercial today, I am surprised to discover it has always been about marketing! In the late 1800s, Richard Cadbury needed to sell more chocolates to use his company’s cocoa butter surplus. Victorians were great fans of Valentine’s Day; they expressed their love in elaborate greeting cards (postage was affordable.) Chocolate became available to the masses (sugar had become cheaper), so Cadbury created a moment of marketing magic, the heart-shaped chocolate box. This beautiful box was sold as a dual-purpose gift because after your sweetheart ate the chocolates, she could use the heart-shaped box to store love letters and romantic mementos.1 In the US, Hershey chocolates made their famous kisses in 1907 continuing the romantic alliance.2
My relationship with chocolate was only at the retail end until my garden travels introduced me to the tiny white flowers emerging directly from the tree trunk of cacao trees.
Like the equally essential coffee and vanilla, the primary growing area for chocolate is in the tropical regions of this planet. While the Dutch, Swiss, and Belgians may be well known for their exquisite chocolate, it doesn’t grow there; it is only processed and sold there. The long journey to a candy counter near you begins 20 degrees above and below the equator.
The cacao or “chocolate tree” is an understory tree, requiring shade, heat, and moisture. Worldwide “90% of cocoa is grown on small family farms of 4-12 acres (2-5 hectares).” It is a labor-intensive crop. It requires six months for the flower to grow into a ripened pod about 10-12 inches long. The crop doesn’t ripen seasonally. Instead, the pods have to be harvested by hand at peak ripeness requiring harvesting every 10-14 days.
The luscious chocolate we know today begins with cracking open a pod and the 25-30 beans extracted from the surrounding white pulp.
Thanks to curiosity and inventiveness centuries ago, someone looked at this sticky mess and decided to taste it. Then they thought, oh, let’s ferment it and let it get stinky for a few days. After that, let’s dry it out for days, grind it, blow away the papery shells, roast it and then add hot water to it!
The resulting bitter drink prized for its stimulating health effects and aphrodisiac powers was served with great exuberance by the Aztecs of Mexico. It became known as “the elixir of the gods.” The beans were so highly valued they were used as currency as valuable as gold.
After the Spanish conquistadors led by Cortez conquered the Aztecs, he took those valuable beans back to Spain, where its aphrodisiac powers quickly increased the popularity of cocoa. Conquest, trade, and export moved cocoa beans worldwide, and people became very creative in attempting to create prized drinking chocolate.
As sugar became more accessible, Cadbury Company in England perfected the recipe. Cocoa butter was a by-product left from making drinking chocolate, and like all good business practices, it needed a purpose. Tinkering with the leftover stuff, Cadbury created new recipes adding sugar, milk, and careful tempered mixing to eventually create a solid block or the first candy bar for “eating chocolate” in 1847.
Now look how far we have come; we have chocolate wrapped around caramels, nuts, nougats, and pretzels. Today chocolate of some variety is available nearly everywhere, from boutique stores to gas stations. You can buy it by the pound, by the piece by the bag, by the box. You can enjoy it by the spoon, by your preferred number of 60%, 70%, 85%, by the color, milk, dark, in frozen treats or hot cups. Today we expect it always to be there whenever we want a little something sweet.
What hasn’t come as far are the farmers and the workers growing, harvesting, fermenting, drying, and packing. “The Ivory Coast (South Coast of West Africa) is the leading supplier in the world for Cacao.”3 The average cacao farmer makes about two US dollars a day. Wages are so low many cacao farmers have never tasted the chocolate they grow. These facts make chocolate less sweet for my heart-shaped celebration. Chocolate production requires predictable growing conditions and climate change threatens production. A tree doesn’t begin producing a viable crop until it is around five years old and is most productive for about 20 years. The organization Fair Trade Chocolate4 as well as Hershey and other chocolate producers are working to improve the lives of the cacao farmers. Much is yet to be done.
After tours in Granada and Ecuador, I learned about the different varieties of cacao trees, Arriba, Criollo, Faraster, Trinitario, and multiple subsequent hybrids. Cacao, like fine wine, is affected by the soil and influences the floral and fruity flavor in the final product. Around the world, competing claims and competitions abound for the origin of the very best chocolate. “Ecuador’s Nacional variety is a genetic variety from the first domesticated cacao trees over 5000 years ago.”5 I stand in awe of how complex the process is and the interdependence of all agriculture.
Ecuador growers are creating their own chocolates, rather than exporting to processors overseas. My personal tasting research can attest to their flavorful success.
Valentine chocolates arrive just when New Year’s resolutions may be weakening, so remember it has many health benefits! John Hopkins and Mayo Clinic6 both report chocolate elevates your mood, contains phytonutrients and antioxidants. Chocolate may lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation, and improve cognitive function. So savor each sweet bite and remember as it melts on your tongue, this completes the long journey from a flower to your heart.
1 Cadbury Chocolates
Other background sources